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MkrGeo

An original point of view

Panoramas, Photography

Long lens photography from the plane – how it works?

Mount Everest Emirates Dubai Manila flight

Mount Everest seen from the cruising altitude at about 300km distance. Emirates flight from Dubai International (DXB) to Manila Ninoy Aquino International (MNL)

I very like to snap remote objects and mountain outlines. Especially since I got the new telephoto lens –  Nikon AF-S Nikkor 55-300mm f4.5-5.6 ED VR. Covering the distant sights from the ground is not only one option, but that may also give you a lot of positive feelings. You can also enjoy a much bigger viewshed from the plane. You need favourable weather conditions and an appropriate position “quite” close to mountains (Pic.1). The aeroplane altitude, around 10000 m.a.g.l. gives you a viewshed up to approximately 360 km ahead! (Pic. 1) Taking into account, that some mountains are higher than the surrounded area, some line of sights may be much more extended (Pic. 2). However, there are only mathematical patterns. Practically atmospherical conditions take hold and calculated viewshed doesn’t guarantee the real possibility of view.

Standard aircraft criusing altitude and the view range

Pic. 1. The typical altitude of flight – 10 km gives you an opportunity to see the area 357 km ahead.

Standard aircraft criusing altitude and the topography view range

Pic. 2. From the typical altitude of the plane, you can see very far objects, located even a few hundreds km from the plane.

Moreover, the pic. 2 represents a simplified pattern only, because not always plane is flying above a sea level. Anyway according to this graph as I said above flightseeing gives us a long-range viewshed.

Let’s take a look at the photography conditions when being in the plane. More than a year ago I said a few words about taking the picture from the middle of the plane. However, I took into account only planes like the Boeing 737-800, which is 6 rowing plane. Today I would like to say more about the practicing long lens photography from the plane including the photography from the middle of the 9 rowing plane.
First I would like to give the answer for taking the picture in wide-body aircraft with 8 – 11 seats across.

In twin-aisle aircraft is much harder to take a picture from the middle. Your view through the window is confined only to a narrow-angle. In this case, you are not able to see any details outside aside from the closest and the most prominent clouds or aircraft turns (Pic. 3 – 5).

Wide-body aircrafts and flightseeing opportunities

Pic. 3. Opportunites to flightseeing in wide-body aircraft: A (red) – view through the window from seats in row A; B (orange) – view from the seat in row B; C (yellow) – view from the seat located in row C; D-E (green) – view from the seat in inner row D or E, behind the aisle.

Emirates EK346 DXB-KUL seats_middle and flightseeing prospect

Pic. 4. The example of a seat located in the middle of the wide-body aircraft. Red line shows one possible angle of view (seatguru.com).

Flightseeing prospects from the middle of the wide-body aircraft

Pic. 5 When sitting in the middle rows the flightseeing is not possible. You have only a narrow-angle view (red arrows). Even if some view is possible at all it can be obstructed by other passengers, that are looking through the window or sleeping.

Seats between the aisles are the worst and flightseeing is impossible from there. If some view is available at all, a bare improvement can be done when using long lenses. Let’s considerate a few examples below.
First I would like to show you using long lenses in flightseeing for the opposite part of the plane (Pic. 6 – 8).

Ryanair flightseeing towards opposite side

Pic. 6 My seat (red rectangle) during the flight from London (STN) to Toulouse (TLS) by Ryanair, FR 295. The red arrow shows the direction of my flightseeing (opposite window) (seatguru.com).

Ryanair from London Stansted (STN) to Tolouse (TLS) opposite side flightseeing

Ryanair from London Stansted (STN) to Tolouse (TLS) opposite side flightseeing cropped

Pic. 7,8 View in the opposite window. 7 – normal, 55mm, 8 – cropped picture.

As you may have noticed in the cropped picture 8 the sharpness is not very good. This is an important thing, that we need to work out doing this kind of photography. Bear in mind, that this is hard. After a few attempts, I’ve got a quite sharp photo (Pic. 9 – 10). Unfortunately, this sharpness will never be perfect, but I will tell later about it.

Ryanair from London Stansted (STN) to Tolouse (TLS) opposite side flightseeing2

Ryanair from London Stansted (STN) to Tolouse (TLS) opposite side flightseeing cropped2

Pic. 9,10 – View in the opposite window: 9 – normal, 200mm; 10 – cropped picture.

Once the opposite window is clear you are very lucky! Most of the time those windows are obstructed by passengers, that are watching something, seating or sleeping. However It doesn’t sound, that you will not achieve your goal! Especially when to use a longer lens (Pic. 11, 12).

Ryanair from London Stansted (STN) to Tolouse (TLS) opposite side flightseeing3

Ryanair from London Stansted (STN) to Tolouse (TLS) opposite side flightseeing3 cropped Puy de Dome Massif Central

Pic. 11, 12 The Puy de Dome volcano in Massif Central seen from the aircraft (FR 295 flight STN-TLS): 11 – normal, 300mm, 12 – a cropped picture with the red line, that shows the Puy de Dome volcano (1465m.a.s.l.) peak from around 160km distance.

When I was traveling by Airbus A380-800 from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai the flightseeing through the opposite windows was not possible at all. Even when I used a long lens (Pic. 13 – 17).

Emirates EK346 DXB-KUL seats shot and opposite side flightseeing

Pic. 13 My seat during the flight EK 345 (KUL-DXB) and attempts to shoots the view from the opposite window (seatguru.com).

Emirates EK346 Dubai (DXB)- Kuala Lumpur (KUL) opposite side flightseeing

Pic. 14 First attempt – the picture is too bright. I can’t see any details in the window, 55 mm.

Emirates EK346 Dubai (DXB)- Kuala Lumpur (KUL) opposite side flightseeing2

Pic. 15 Second attempt – I have got proper picture parameters, however the zoom is too small; 55mm, 1/4000s, f5.6, ISO 160. Moreover, the opposite window is mostly obstructed.

Emirates EK346 Dubai (DXB)- Kuala Lumpur (KUL) opposite side flightseeing3

Emirates EK346 Dubai (DXB)- Kuala Lumpur (KUL) opposite side flightseeing4 cropped

Pic. 16, 17; 16 – Third, last attempt. I used the 200mm lens to make a shoot of the view in the opposite window. Unfortunately, I’ve got nothing. Possibly due to clouds. The mostly obstructed window didn’t give a lot of view and thereby a space for cropping the picture; 17 – cropped picture – a very faint and featureless view with very poor sharpness.

Pic. 15 – 17 shows exactly the issues, that I have raised earlier for Pic. 3 – 5. In the case of wide-body aircraft, you have only one line of sight, that almost always can be blocked by others. On top of that, you have to adjust the brightness of your picture. To distinguish the external view from the fuselage is good to make your picture as dark as possible. In general, everything says, that flightseeing in this way is not possible even when you are sitting in the middle of the wide-body aircraft.

In another part of this article, I would like to say more about the long lens photography from the plane itself. I was found, that the longest zoom lens cannot be used in the flightseeing. The reason lies in the window glasses quality.
Basically, the aircraft windows are made from plexiglasses. This material is light, relatively strong and you can see clearly through it. However, the major drawback of this is crazing (hairline cracks on the surface of the material), that are caused by temperature, stress, dirt and UV exposure. Those cracks are the best visible with frost when flying on high altitude (Pic. 18).

Plexiglass comprising of one part of the aircraft window with a lot of crazing with frost EasyJet

Pic. 18 Plexiglass, that is a basic element in the aircraft window. Due to long exploitation, some cracks are visible. Many of them are frosted during the flight.

This is one of the reasons, that interfere with the long lens photography during the flight. Those plexiglasses are featured with decent optic properties, but a lot of crazings bring the photo sharpness down.
Another one arises out also from the window design. The aircraft windows are multiple layers thick (Pic. 19).

Typical aircraft window elements consisted

Pic. 19 Typical aircraft window elements graph (aviation.stakexchange.com).

The side facing the passengers is a plastic sheet with the lowest optic quality. Moreover, this sheet is not uniform and somewhere on the window, there are “lines” or even “areas”, where this window layer has been integrated (Pic. 20, 21).

Nonuniformity of the aircraft window optic quality

Pic. 20 A good example of nonuniformity the optic quality in the aircraft window. Red rectangle areas are the worst and those parts of the image are really noisy unlike to yellow marked area, which is the sharpest in the picture, Warsaw, Poland.

Aircraft window line of distorsion Ryanair STN - TLS

Pic. 21 Another “line of distortion” seen in the window after using the zoom lens (marked red), Toulouse, France.

A separate case applies to the Dreamliner 787 windows. I experienced it when I was flying from Oslo to San Francisco by Norwegian Airlines. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft has “the best airplane windows ever”, that is equipped with an electronic system responsible for the fast switching light control and gradually diminishing effect from clear to dark (Pic. 22, 23).

Boeing 787 Dreamliner window construction

Pic. 22 The Boeing 787 Dreamliner window (aviation.stakexchange.com).

Boeing 787 Dreamliner gradually diminning effect in window - blue colour

Pic. 23. The gradually diminishing effect in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner window (scale 1 on the left, 3 in the middle and 5 on the right).

Referring to the pic. 21 you have a button, which you can adjust the diminishing level to your needs. You have 5 levels of brightness, where level 1 means clear view and level 5 completely dark blue window with no sunlight at all. Unfortunately, as the image shows this is a local controller only! That means, that someone else can do it for you, what is not necessary for photographers and travelers, who love watching the Earth from the top. At least in Norwegian airlines, the cabin crew after the delivering a meal makes all windows darker! They used to turn level 3, whereas you need to have at least level 2 to make your pictures clear! During my journey to the United States, I was facing the level 3 above Greenland! What a shame! (Pic. 24 – 26). I am afraid, that all airlines, that owe a Boeing 787 Dreamliner can practice this stupid policy! In Norwegian flight, passengers were able to make the window clear just before the last meal, around 1,5 hours before landing and nearly 30 mins after the plane passed above the Rockies in south Canada. Great!

Boeing 787 Dreamliner Norwegian OSL - OAK and blue dimmining effect above Greenland

Pic. 24 A continental glacier covering the biggest island in the world – Greenland. Flight by Norwegian OSL-OKL with windows dimmed to level 3.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner Norwegian OSL - OAK and blue dimmining effect above Baffin Bay

Boeing 787 Dreamliner Norwegian OSL - OAK and blue dimmining effect above Baffin Bay2

Pic. 25, 26 A multitude of ice floes and icebergs on the Davis Strait between Greenland and Baffin Island, Norwegian OSL-OKL flight with windows with dark level 3.

In the case of Norwegian (and probably general Boeing 787 Dreamliner) long-haul flights, where the flight personnel makes your window darker without your consent the photography is barely possible. You can get over a little bit this blueness using a higher ISO value or longer exposure, although it doesn’t really work because the plane is moving fast. Even when you are at the top o the troposphere using a longer exposure will reduce the sharpness of your picture similarily to the ISO value, which will make it noisy. There is definitely no option for long lens photography in this case.

Returning to the aircraft window optics quality we need to know, that it will definitely affect our long lens pictures. Every crack and distortion on the window is going to be multiplied. At the outcome, the sharpness of your picture will be dramatically reduced. I have been doing long lens pictures for more than 1 year and I came to some conclusions how to make the photos as sharp as possible.
1. First of all, even if you are going to make normal pictures without zoom you have to clear your window! Always, when you entering the plane and taking your seat the window is quite dirty after the previous passenger. Window can be made dirty by yourself, especially before landing, when you woke up (Pic. 27). Only 1 clean tissue can make it tidy again.

Emirates flight from London Gatwick (LGW) to Dubai International (DXB) plexiglass dirt on window easy to clean

Pic. 27. The dirt on the plexiglass (marked red), that partially reduce the photo sharpness, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

2. Avoid the sunlight, because the sunlight may cause ghost images. Light is to be reflected on the glass and finally, you will see your portrait rather than landscape outside (Pic. 28). When you have got a seat a front of the sun tries to capture the landscape not affected by sunlight.

Ghosty image caused by sunlight reflection on the aircraft glass, Ryanair STN - RZE above North Sea

Pic. 28 Ghost image caused by sunlight reflected on the plexiglass, flight Ryanair FR 2137 above the North Sea.

3. Avoid the window edges, where distortion is much bigger than anywhere! (Pic. 29) and also other “lines” or “areas” of distortion when possible (Pic.20, 21).

Aircraft window edge sharpness impairment Ryanair STN-RZE

Pic. 29. Shooting very close to the window edge will strongly impact on the sharpness of your picture, Rzeszów, Poland.

4. Use as fast exposure as possible, because in the long lens photography even the highest-flying altitude may hot help you to make a sharp picture (Pic. 30).

Not sharp Dubai from the plane LGW - DXB Emirates flight

Pic. 30 This picture has been taken with a 100mm lens. Unfortunately is not sharp, because the aperture was to slow to the conditions, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

When you using the zoom lenses you have to remember, that the parallax is also zoomed in (multiplied). For instance, 10x zoom causes 10x higher probability, that your photo will not be clear due to aperture.

5. Remember, that the longest zoom lens, that you can use in the plane is 135mm! I am not kidding. I took a few hundreds photos through the aircraft window and trust me only in a few cases the quality of the pictures zoomed in more than 135mm was sufficient. Mostly the plexiglass reduces the sharpness dramatically for values higher than 135mm. Sometimes even lower value may bring insufficient effect, however, taking pictures with a zoom lens up to 70mm in 95% cases gives a guarantee of good quality.
Now I would like to bring you a few live examples of this:
Chaura island 98mm lens shot Emirates DXB - KUL flight

Chaura island 200mm lens shot Emirates DXB - KUL flight

Pic. 31, 32 Chaura Island (The Nicobar Islands) cropped pictures: 31 – 98mm sharp picture; 32 – 200mm fuzzy image.

Brighton Seven Sisters Cliffs seen from the plane 125mm Ryanair TLS - STN

Brighton Seven Sisters Cliffs seen from the plane 200mm Ryanair TLS - STN

Brighton Seven Sisters Cliffs seen from the plane 300mm Ryanair TLS - STN

Pic. 33, 34, 35. Seven Sister Cliffs seen from the plane, flight FR 296 (TLS-STN), all cropped: 33 – 125mm, perfectly sharp; 34 – 200mm, slightly noisy; 35 – 300mm, completely unuseful.

Greater London seen from the plane Ryanair TLS - STN flight

Pic. 36 Greater London from the plane, flight FR 296 (TLS-STN), 300mm.

Chichester Harbour Estuary seen from the plane Easyjet PMI-STN flight

Pic. 37 Chichester Harbour estuary seen from the plane, 140mm, flight U2 3214 (PMI-STN).

Ryanair from London Stansted (STN) to Valencia (VLC) seen from Easyjet flight STN - PMI 300mm shot

Pic. 38 Ryanair FR 8321 flying from Stansted (STN) to Valencia (VLC) seen from Easyjet U2 3213 flying from Stansted (STN) to Palma de Mallorca (PMI), 300mm and unfortunately fuzzy picture.

Ryanair from London Stansted (STN) to Valencia (VLC) seen from Easyjet flight STN - PMI 300mm shot cropped

Pic. 39 …and cropped one. Not so many details 🙁

At the finish, I would like to share with you the panoramas issue. Returning to the very top of this article, where I said, that our viewshed should be extended a lot. Knowing, that the plastic layers and plexiglasses in the aircraft windows provided a slightly deformed optic view of the landscape we shouldn’t expect perfect long-distance views. Another factor is obviously the atmosphere. However, there are rare examples, where you can cover some mountains at impressive distances. In that case, you will not see more details than the outline only, but you will enjoy anyway.
When I was flying from Toulouse to London Stansted in December 2016 I was fortunate to witness the longest visible distance ever! I saw the Alps from around 450 km! (Pic. 40 – 42). Unfortunately, I can’t boost my record, because my observation was not carried out from the surface or the object enduringly associated with the ground (like tower, TV transmitter, etc.). A current world record of distance landscape photography is 443 km, so my record would be around 7 – 10 km longer (Pic. 40-42).

Alps seen from the plane above Toulouse, Ryanair TFS - STN

Alps seen from the plane above Toulouse, Ryanair TFS - STN zoom

Alps seen from the plane above Toulouse, Ryanair TFS - STN zoom2

Pic. 40 – 42 The french Alps seen from the aircraft window during the flight FR 296 (TLS-STN), all pictures with modified gamma: 40 – 55mm general picture; 41 – 300mm probably with the Grandes Rousses group (Pic Bayle – 3465m.a.s.l.) on 435-440 km distance; 42 – 300mm with Dauphine Alps (Barre de Ecrins 4102 m.a.s.l. marked blue) on 445 – 454 km distance.

Alps seen from the plane above Toulouse, Ryanair TFS - STN Flightradar 24.com

Pic. 43 The proximate position of FR 296 flight (TLS-STN), from which the Dauphine Alps and Grandes Rousses were visible. According to Udeuschle panorama generator from this position to the highest and the furthest peak at once was 453km!

Alps seen from the plane above Toulouse from estimated Ryanair position Urlich Deuschle panorama

Pic. 44 The general panoramic view (5x zoom factor) from the FR 296 flight towards the French Alps (Grandes Rousses on the left and Dauphine Alps on the right) (udeuschle.selfhost.pro).

Alps seen from the plane above Toulouse from estimated Ryanair position Urlich Deuschle panorama2

Alps seen from the plane above Toulouse from estimated Ryanair position Urlich Deuschle panorama3

Pic. 45-46 The zoomed view on the French Alps from the FR 296 flight, the most prominent and furthest peaks has been yellow labeled: 45 – The Grandes Rousses with the Pic Bayle 3465m.a.s.l and 438 km distance; 46 – The Dauphine Alps with the highest and the furthest peak Barre de Ecris (4101m.a.s.l) and its slope Dome de Neige des Ecrins  (4002m.a.s.l.) from 453 km distance! (udeuschle.selfhost.pro)

This observation was really fortunate at that time. In spite of plexiglass distortions and cracks I could quite clearly see the mountain outlines and moreover, I was able to see the snow on the top (Pic. 41).
Unfortunately, the plexiglasses in the aircraft are not the same. One flight may differ much from another. For instance, during the next time when I was returning from Mallorca, I couldn’t make a similar effect using a 300mm lens (Pic. 47 – 50). I had problems even with a small zoom (Pic. 47-50).

Mallorca Sierra Tramuntana seen above Barcelona from Easyjet plane PMI to STN flight 300mm shot

Mallorca Sierra Tramuntana seen above Barcelona from Easyjet plane PMI to STN flight 135mm shot

Mallorca Sierra Tramuntana seen above Barcelona from Easyjet plane PMI to STN flight 55mm shot

Pic. 47-49 Sierra de Tramuntana seen from flight U2 3214 (PMI-STN) above Barcelona (180 km distance) with the most prominent Puig Major (1415m.a.s.l.) and Puig de Masanella (1364m.a.s.l.), all pictures with gamma & contrast modified: 47 – 300mm, quite fuzzy outline; 48 – 135mm, relatively sharp; 49 – 55mm – sharp.

Pyrenees seen from the plane, Easyjet PMI - STN flight

Pic. 50 One of the very rare examples, where even small zoom lens (55mm) can’t provide a good picture quality, because of too many cracks and distortions on the plexiglass, Pyrenees Mts, Tuc de Molieres community and Val de Mollieres.

At the very end of my article, I would like to share the newest flightseeing long lens photography from my last journey from Dubai to Manila, when I was able to see the Himalayas Mountains (Pic. 51 – 54).

Himalaya Mts seen from the plane, Emirates DXB - MNL flight Sishapangma

Pic. 51 Sishapangma (8027m.a.s.l.) seen from around 310 km distance during the flight EK334 (DXB-MNL), 120mm, cropped with gamma & contrast modifying.

Himalaya Mts seen from the plane, Emirates DXB - MNL flight Himalchuli

Pic. 52 Himalchuli (7893m.a.s.l.) seen from around 340 km distance during the flight EK334 (DXB-MNL), 98mm, gamma & contrast modified.

Himalaya Mts seen from the plane, Emirates DXB - MNL flight Mt Everest

Pic. 53 Mount Everest (8848m.a.s.l.), the highest peak of the World was in the clouds and Tutse (6758m.a.s.l.) on the right seen from around 290 km distance during the flight EK334 (DXB-MNL), 98mm, gamma & contrast modified.

Himalaya Mts seen from the plane, Emirates DXB - MNL flight Kangchenjunga

Pic. 54 The Kangchenjunga (8586m.a.s.l.) seen from around 270 km distance during the flight EK334 (DXB-MNL), 240mm, gamma & contrast modified.

And the Ganges river just under me :).

Ganges river seen from the cruising altitude, Emirates DXB-MNL flight

Pic. 55 The Ganges river with the bridge near Bhagalpur and Raghopur, 55mm. Due to poor visibility conditions in this area I had to modify the gamma and contrast to enhance this view.

Summarizing, the biggest lens, that you can use in the plane is 135mm. It gives you a guarantee to have nice and sharp pictures. This is still a big zoom, that allows you to have around 8x zoom factor compared to the kit lenses (17-18mm).

Mariusz Krukar

 

Links:

  1.  The dip of the horizon calculator
  2.  The dip of the horizon explanation
  3. Forbes: Electrochromic Materials Used To Make Smart Glass In Airplane Windows Could Have Widespread Uses
  4. Aircraft windows
  5. Why is there a hole in one of the layer of an airplane’s windows?
  6. Interactive plane windows
  7. How The Magical Windows in Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner Work
  8. Current World Record of distant landscape photography
  9. Current World Record of distant landscape photography – explanation

Read also:

  1. How to capture a landscape from the middle of the plane?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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